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EASY ACCESS: Students use Kindles to check out books at public libraries.
Erica Brough/Gainesville Sun/Landov
EASY ACCESS: Students use Kindles to check out books at public libraries.

R-rated libraries

Books | The U.S. library establishment is ideologically committed to providing inappropriate material to children, but citizens are not powerless to stop it

Issue: "Coming to America," April 6, 2013

It’s a scene lodged in collective memory: afternoons at the neighborhood library. Grandparents remember checking out stacks of picture books with sturdy bindings and smudged pages, working up to Betsy-Tacy and Hardy Boys novels. Add a few banks of computer screens, and the library looks much the same today, with its comfy chairs and cheery Kid Zones.

But picture a mom who has dropped off her kids at the sparkling new branch while she runs to the mall for two hours of shopping. On her return, while waiting for her children to use up their allotted computer time, she pages through the books her 12-year-old has already checked out. Some shocking words jump out from the text: Can you say that, in a children’s book? Another novel falls open to a scene of teenagers exploring sex for the first time. And this book on art photography is more graphic than an R-rated movie! What were they thinking at the checkout desk?

And she thought the library was safe. What happened?

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The American Library Association, chartered in Philadelphia in 1876, began with a modest aim: “to enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense.” At that time the organization held firmly to middle-class values. Arthur Bostwick, elected president of the ALA in 1908, proudly stated in his inaugural address that, even though sin-glorifying books might tempt the general public, “Thank heaven they do not tempt the librarian.”

What did tempt the librarian was political ideology. In 1938, while Nazi book bonfires were burning in Germany and The Grapes of Wrath was outraging readers in the United States, Forrest Spaulding, director of the Des Moines Public Library, wrote a list of anti-censorship principles. These became the “Library Bill of Rights,” adopted by the ALA the following year. Though only one page long, it’s a formidable document: It has undergone five revisions and acquired its own interpretative adjunct—the Office of Intellectual Freedom—and its own legal arm, the Freedom to Read Foundation. The ALA in 1967 added one little word to Article V (“A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, background, or views”). That word, inserted between origin and background, was age.

There’s the rub: the public library’s long-standing association with children. It’s where big-city immigrant kids learned about America and small-town American kids broadened their horizons. As children’s publishing carved a bigger slice of book sales, libraries created larger children’s sections. The ALA’s Newbery Medal, established in 1921, was the first children’s book award in the world.

When the exploding social mores of the ’60s and ’70s introduced themes of sex, suicide, and substance abuse to the juvenile stacks, parents suited up for action—only to find the ALA already armed with Article V and the intellectual muscle to enforce it. But enforce what, exactly—and how? The Library Bill of Rights has no power of law, and the ALA itself is only a professional organization with voluntary membership. Nevertheless, many individual librarians, especially those who are conservative Christians, believe it favors social activism over community standards.

For example, the expansion of computer access in public libraries led to CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act: Bill Clinton signed it into law in 2000. CIPA requires schools and public libraries receiving government funds to block pornographic internet sites on their public-use computers. When the ALA (along with the ACLU) challenged CIPA, a 2003 Supreme Court decision upheld the constitutionality of the law. But blocking software can be disabled upon an adult patron’s request, leading to reported incidents of pornography being visible “over the shoulder.”

The bestseller status of Fifty Shades of Grey bumped “intellectual freedom” to a new level. The three-volume series about a sadomasochistic affair is soft-core porn, of the sort that public libraries have traditionally eschewed. But as sales figures zoomed into the stratosphere, libraries gained notoriety for not buying the books.

When the Brevard County, Fla., library system removed its copies, the National Coalition against Censorship (which includes the ALA) went into action with a strongly worded letter to the Brevard County Library Board. Strong words had their effect, and Fifty Shades returned to the shelves. In Maryland’s Harford County, the director’s decision not to purchase the trilogy stirred a firestorm of criticism on library websites, but she stood her ground—in part. Fifty Shades remained unordered in print form, but the electronic version is available, which might be even more of a temptation to a 12-year-old who can quietly download it to her Kindle.

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